The nation’s most impressive fireworks display this summer won’t be found on the Mall or over the Hudson River. This year, the crown already has been awarded to the small town of Denver in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.
Stifling heat and an early-morning gavel did not stop a group of eager buyers from gathering late last month at Morphy Auctions in Denver for the sale of what is thought to have been the world’s largest private collection of rare, vintage and antique fireworks, sparklers, salutes, pinwheels and “supercharged flashlight crackers.”
Buyers from across the country slowly perused the preview room, peering into glass cases in search of their dream buys. Auction-goers stealthily marked catalogs and bidding sheets with names such as “Yan Kee Boy,” “China Goo Boy,” “Bobco Bill” and “Globe Torpedoes.” Longtime friends became rivals as they mistrustfully brushed past one another to take their seats in the auction hall as the sale got under way.
The gavel fell hard, and the bidding was fierce. The “auction chant” echoed off the walls and back corridors as participants placed their bids in person, by phone and online. Colorful “penny packs,” which sold for 1 cent 100 years ago or more, were soon scooped up at prices north of $1,000 — a nominal 100,000 percent markup on the original.
Intently watching from the back of the room was the man who had made the day and the sale possible — George Moyer, a 64-year-old author, former Marine and professional pyrotechnician from Pottsville, Pa. Cool and calm, Mr. Moyer watched the proceedings with a warm smile and crossed arms as the collection he had built up over about 50 years was sold off piece by piece and lot by lot to his former rivals and fellow “pyromaniacs.”
A love for labels
Mr. Moyer recalled in an interview that his fascination with firecrackers began when he was 10 years old. “When other kids were shooting them off, I was collecting the labels they left behind,” he said.
The labels and packages in his collection were meant to find their way into a trash can or explode. The cover artwork, detailed in the auction’s colorful hard-bound catalog and now much prized by collectors, was never meant to be preserved.
Ornate designs depicting flying fish and clowns taming circus elephants were just marketing tools to distinguish among competing brands. Companies sold their products by catching the buyer’s eye with bright colors and dazzling designs. Companies astonished buyers with patriotic montages of eagles; the red, white and blue; and heroic depictions of the U.S. military.
A Crax Boy package of “flashlight firecrackers,” made in China by the Chan Tai Kee Co., featured a messenger boy based on the Whitman Sampler candy logo delivering a box overflowing with firecrackers framed by columns of Chinese language characters. The pre-consumer-safety movement warning on the cover read, “After lighting, do not hold in hand.”
Estimated to go for a top price of $1,000, the item was gaveled down at Morphy at a purchase price of $3,025.
With firecracker samples dating to the 1800s, Mr. Moyer’s collection in a sense represents a kind of patriotic time capsule. The collection ends around the 1960s, which is about the time the industry’s marketing and image masters began to lose their “spark,” the collector said.
“I don’t think today’s art will ever be considered antiques,” Mr. Moyer said. “Sadly, their quality has really diminished.”
He noted that firecracker companies now sell to larger markets and mass-produce their products.
Those in the auction gallery did not have to wait long to see an escalating bidding war. The auctioneer had no trouble sorting through the head nods, hand signals and Internet pop-ups. Buyers showed no qualms about making their intentions known as they slowly but surely pushed up the price for each individual lot.
It was easy for buyers to forget that they were at an auction house as they comfortably sat in movie-theater-style seating complete with cup holders. The only things missing were some popcorn and a private screening of the film “Independence Day.”
Priced modestly when first produced, Mr. Moyer’s firecrackers quickly attracted impressive prices, routinely exceeding the pre-auction estimates with prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per lot.
One of the early lots, an intact pack of Merry Go Round firecrackers, sold for $3,000. That was quickly eclipsed by the auction’s most profitable piece: a salesman’s sample board with sparklers, caps and “flash salutes” from the Star, Bronco and Mustang brands that sold for $7,200.
Another salesman’s sample board, with one unit titled “Burning Schoolhouse” by the R.F. Co. of Rochester, N.Y., sold for $4,800.
Overall, 40 lots sold for more than $1,000, and the grand total for all 1,300 lots was $438,000.
Mr. Moyer reminisced about his own days stalking auction houses for choice purchases and laughed at the irony that the infamous buyer had become an infamous seller. He insisted that he never worried about rivals in the bidding wars that defined his collecting experience.
“I always won,” he said, citing the constant, compulsory desire to buy the most valuable or unusual item he saw. His eye for unique and valuable pieces, fellow fireworks enthusiasts say, made his collection something almost impossible to replicate.
News of the sale attracted attention far beyond the collectibles world. The New York Times, Forbes magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer and several television networks reported about the planned auction.
“This level of media attention might not have seemed so unusual had it been a collection of Picassos,” Morphy Auctions head Dan Morphy told the website LiveAuctioneers.com after the sale, “but we’re talking about firecrackers — ephemeral objects that cost as little as 1 cent when they were first marketed.”
Mr. Moyer chose to sell now only to alleviate the burden that selling thousands of firecrackers to the right people for the right price would cause his family. “I couldn’t have collectors coming in here offering $20 for a rare item,” he said.
Morphy spokeswoman Catherine Watson said the collector wanted “to sell to someone with a warm hand [rather] than a cold one” — a regular mantra in the antiques business.
In the hunt
Back at the auction, it was hard not to notice the aggressive bidding style of fellow pyromaniac Mark Clark. Mr. Clark bought 65 lots in the Moyer collection with a maximum bid of $1,000.
“For 10 years, I have done nothing but the hunt,” Mr. Clark said, describing himself and Mr. Moyer as “phone friends.”
“George and I have spoken hundreds of times over the phone, with George trying to buy some of my collection and vice versa.” Mr. Clark said Mr. Moyer was an aggressive bidder and a real legend in the business.
Mr. Clark was interested in Mr. Moyer’s label collection, with special attention to those depicting animals. He snatched up GreyHound and Moose labels that he described as his holy grails.
“I was interested in labels because I see them as more economical,” Mr. Clark said. “Why pay more simply because the label is attached to the actual firecrackers? If the value is in the art, it only makes sense to go for the labels.”
Many of the labels depict “occupational, sports and ethnic themes,” Mr. Morphy said. Colorful depictions of penguins, rabbits, Santa Claus, cowboys, Indians and even Tarzan made the collection desirable to pyromaniacs and more general-interest genre collectors.
Some of Mr. Moyer’s favorite personal items sold for considerable sums. One favorite, a Marine Brand pack of firecrackers that had particular meaning for Mr. Moyer, sold for $3,000.
Another of his favorites was a copy of “Round One,” which depicts a young female boxer resting in the ring with her legs crossed, arms hanging on the ropes, greeting the buyer with a smile.
Overall, Mr. Moyer proclaimed himself pleased with the auction and happy that it went off without any glitches, though he said he had a few surprises from the bidding.
“There were a few [items] that I thought were worth very little that went to the moon. While on the other hand, there were other pieces that I thought were quite valuable that didn’t make it to the right price.”
The collector has written two books on the subject: “Firecrackers: The Art and History,” and a follow-up volume, “Firecrackers!: An Eye-Popping Collection of Chinese Firework Art.” Both illustrate the developments in fireworks throughout history and trace their cultural significance.
Ms. Watson of Morphy Auctions said the catalog for the firecracker auction was one of the most requested the company has ever published and is likely to become “the standard for collectors.” With prices and colorful images of the collection, the catalog is the pyromaniacs’ bible and will guide collectors and enthusiasts for years to come.
As the gavel fell for the final time, those in attendance stopped to pay their respects to Mr. Moyer and ask him to sign their catalogs and books. Mr. Moyer humbly signed their copies and engaged many in conversations peppered with jargon that only pyromaniacs understand.
Asked whether it was really Mrs. Moyer who wanted the collection out of their house, Mr. Moyer laughed and said, “She enjoyed it too and appreciated the artwork. I had nothing but loving support from her.”
Despite seeing a lifetime collection broken up, Mr. Moyer said he felt no regrets or desire to hold on to at least a couple of items.
“It’s hard to keep a piece or two when it would always be a reminder of the thousands of others that you gave up.”